- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2010

Of the several thousand races for public office on ballots nationwide in 2010, few offer higher stakes for Republicans than the race for U.S. Senate in Nevada.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is vulnerable. Surveys of likely voters put him behind any of the top three Republican candidates in head-to-head matchups. In a state where President Obama, health care legislation and government bailouts are very unpopular, Mr. Reid is Mr. Washington. A disciplined, focused candidate and a party organization that understands its role and acts now to help rather than hurt its eventual nominee could prove unbeatable, even to the well-financed Mr. Reid.

But if Republicans are to take advantage of this opportunity, the party must work on behalf of all the candidates to erase Mr. Reid’s substantial advantages in organization, fundraising and infrastructure. There are several key things the party can do to stack the deck for the eventual Republican nominee:

Let Nevada primary voters decide who will be the GOP nominee

If we’ve learned anything from the New York 23rd District House race last year and the Florida and California Republican Senate primary races this year, it’s that the Republican National Committee (RNC) must resist the temptation to attempt to play kingmaker. In all three cases, the RNC’s blessings earned candidates nothing but attacks from those in their own party and served the interests only of Democrats.

Moreover, it helps tactically to let the process run its course. Mr. Reid can’t target a specific opponent until it’s clear who that opponent is; for now, he must run against all 12. Second, Nevadans will be more likely to work for a candidate of their choosing rather than one perceived to have been selected from afar. Should the economy recover or the Democrats’ poll numbers otherwise improve - unlikely but possible in both instances - it no longer will be enough to demonize Mr. Reid. The eventual Republican candidate must be able to attract votes in his own right.

Persuade independents and nonpartisan voters to embrace the GOP brand

Independents account for close to 300,000 of Nevada’s 1.3 million voters, and any Republican nominee must attract a substantial portion of them to defeat Mr. Reid. They are all over the map politically - some to the left of the typical Republican, some to the right. But they are not thrilled with Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons or with the scandals involving their Republican senator, John Ensign.

The RNC must start now to rebuild the Republican image among Silver State voters. It should stress issues where it connects best with independents - low taxes; free enterprise; the need for limited, effective government; choice and competition in education; and the need, above else, to keep Nevada from turning into high-tax, low-growth California.

If the RNC can’t persuade Nevadans to support the Republican brand, it risks entry of a third-party candidate into the race. Several already have filed. If one gains momentum, it could be trouble for the GOP unless the Republican nominee is clearly seen as the standard-bearer for the issues that concern independents. Even then, it would be better if the RNC works to keep the Nevada Senate race a two-candidate battle in the fall.

Help all primary candidates increase Nevada GOP primary voter participation

Democrats hold a significant advantage in voter registration in Nevada. Republicans must maximize primary turnout - and then some - if they are to defeat Mr. Reid or his son, Rory Reid, who could be the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in November.

Participation in primary elections has reached historic lows in Nevada in the past decade. If the RNC can improve primary turnout, its nominee will be in a better position to track and turn out those same voters in November. Rather than withhold resources during the primary, the RNC should do everything it can to help all the candidates identify and turn out as many Republican primary voters as possible.

The RNC can play a significant and positive role in replacing Mr. Reid with a Republican, but it must reach outside its traditional playbook, resist the urge to play kingmaker and work with all candidates - and all Silver State Republicans - to build turnout and the party brand. It will require uncommon discipline and focus, but the stakes - both attainable and significant - make the effort worthwhile.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are the co-founders of ProjectVirginia.

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